NHT SuperZero loudspeaker & SW2 subwoofer Page 4
If you treat the SuperZeros like just another cheap speaker, that's the kind of sound you'll hear. But while most cheap speakers never really improve no matter what kind of attention you give 'em, the NHTs reward every bit of attention to setup detail with sound quality that has simply not been previously available anywhere near this price point.
So what did they sound like? Like true high-end speakers, except without any bass. They don't have "some" bass—NO bass. Used solo, even on a good pair of solid speaker stands, the SuperZeros just didn't have a real, or even implied, low end. I heard a slight emphasis in the upper bass around 150-200Hz that added a bit of chestiness to male vocals, but the NHTs didn't have the kind of "quasi-bass" midbass hump found in small speakers (such as the PSB Alpha and LS3/5A) that can fake you into thinking you're hearing real low bass. The NHTs were more in the mold of a true high-end minimonitor: neutral and accurate, with no attempt to do anything in the low end, and focusing their strengths on the range above 100Hz. As crazy as it sounds, consider the NHT SuperZero a budget Wilson WATT. After you listen, you won't think it's crazy at all.
By themselves, the li'l NHTs sounded extremely smooth and uncolored through the midrange, but with a bit of treble brightness (because there's no low end to balance out their sound). Unlike the Spica TC-50, which achieves a good tonal balance by rolling off the high end to complement a similar rolloff in the bass, the bass-less NHT's high end was unattenuated—in fact, the SuperZero had a slight treble emphasis that, while not an irritating overbrightness, served to further shift its tonal balance to the thin and forward. Without the SW2 subwoofer filling in the low end, the SuperZero sounded overly thin and wispy, especially with gritty-sounding budget electronics. The SuperZero is not a "cheap'n'cheerful" low-rez speaker that'll smooth over the rough edges in a poorly matched budget system. Like the true high-end speaker it is, the NHT accurately reproduced the signal fed it, warts and all.
Yet even when used without a subwoofer, the first thing that stood out about the SuperZeros was their incredible sense of spaciousness and sheer, vivid soundscape portrayal. You just don't expect a pair of tiny $230 speakers to sound like a giant wall of sound when you close your eyes, but the NHTs did. As absurd as it may sound, the NHTs disappeared as well as or better than the $3000/pair ProAc Response Twos I lovingly reviewed in Vol.15 No.7, p.109. I set up the NHTs well away from the rear and sidewalls and was rewarded with a vivid, boundary-free soundscape that floated in the air without any aural clues that it was coming from those two tiny black boxes on the other side of the room. Recordings with a real sense of depth and soundstage, such as Los Lobos' Kiko (Slash 26786-2), or the great new Jeff Palmer organ-trio workout Ease On (AudioQuest AQ-CD1014), came across with a sense of ambient detail and lack of boxiness that I just don't hear from many sub-$1000 loudspeakers, much less ones costing only $230.
In this regard, the SuperZeros aren't merely great for the money, they're great period. Kiko's "Wake Up Delores," in particular, had as impressive a sense of palpable space around and between the hard-left and hard-right panned guitars at the front of the soundstage, with the drums at the rear, as I've heard in either of my two listening rooms. And the QSound-processed images from Roger Waters's Amused To Death sound-effects CD extended way to the outside of the NHTs and in a 180 degrees arc in front of me. Contrast this with the $695/pair Vandersteen 1Bs I reviewed in September 1993 (Vol.16 No.9, p.98), which refused to image much beyond the speakers' outside edges—they were more colored and congested through the midrange and presented an overall lower level of resolution across the band than the one-third-as-expensive SuperZeros.
That's the word I'm looking for—resolution. The SuperZeros' midrange smoothness and sheer resolution of recorded detail put them on a par with other high-end loudspeakers costing many thousands of dollars. This is no exaggeration. Compared to the pair of Spica TC-50s I had on hand, the SuperZeros had a higher level of resolution and a less "muffled" character through the midrange and low treble. The clear-as-a-bell gospel vocals of the Fairfield Four's Standing in the Safety Zone (Warner Bros. 26945-2) sounded much more present and clear with the SuperZeros, the Spicas tending toward an overwarm and rolled-off character in the low treble that made them sound far too reticent and chesty compared to the NHTs. The TC-50s were my reference speaker for a time when I was first getting into high-end audio years ago, but if the SuperZeros had been around back then, I would have undoubtedly chosen them. Terrific-sounding as they are, the TC-50s do not have the coherence or neutrality of the SuperZeros. And while the TC-50s have much deeper bass extension and are extremely non-fatiguing to listen to, the SuperZeros are less colored overall and give a more accurate picture of the audio signal fed them.
The SuperZeros obviously needed good stands to get them up high enough for serious listening. Unfortunately, most good stands cost more than the speakers themselves! While the SuperZeros are definitely deserving of as high a quality stand as you can find, I'm not gonna recommend that you buy stands that cost more than the speakers!!
So I builded me a pair of Aunt Corey's Uneducated White Trash DIY Speaker Stands: cinder blocks, two per stand, stacked end to end. This gave me very massive, literally rock-solid stands 31" high, which happened to be a good height for the SuperZeros in both of my listening rooms.